Rally Organizers Worry Storm Will Shrink Turnout

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 16, 2007

District politicians, civic leaders and organizers of today's voting rights rally urged a crowd of about 60 supporters gathered downtown yesterday to call and e-mail friends in a last-ditch push for a huge turnout despite predictions of bad weather.

Nearly 8,000 people have signed up for the march and rally, said Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, an advocacy group that is among the leaders of the effort. But if the heavy rain that drenched the District yesterday continues, only about 1,000 might show, Zherka said.

As the rain poured outside, Zherka and others encouraged each person gathered inside the Martin Luther King Jr. Library for pre-rally activities to ask at least 10 others to participate in the demonstration. The event could be one of the city's largest campaigns for voting rights in at least a decade.

"We need to demand the vote steadily by putting feet to the streets," Zherka told the crowd. Many of them wore voting rights T-shirts and red and white "51" stickers, championing their wishes for the District to become the 51st state.

The demonstration is timed to send a message to Congress, which is expected this week to debate a measure that would give the District a full vote in the House of Representatives for the first time in its history.

Yesterday's rain was "symbolic," D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said.

"It's been raining on our rights in D.C. for the past two centuries," he said. "We have a compelling case for voting rights. We're the only nation in the democratic world where the capital does not have representation."

Council members Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) also spoke.

"This is not just Democrats, but Democrats and Republicans," Schwartz said to applause and cheers from a handful of people wearing D.C. Republican Party T-shirts.

Liz Schwartz, 25, said she plans to march even though she lives in Rockville, not the District.

"It's a huge tragedy that the capital of our country can't decide its own laws," she said while putting the finishing touches on a sign.

About 30 people spoke to motivate the library crowd. A recording of Nina Simone's civil rights ballad "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" played softly over the library's loudspeakers.

Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the city's non-voting House delegate, called today's march a "test of its own" in historic movements. The city is also marking its annual Emancipation Day, but Norton said she rarely participated in past celebrations because she never felt District residents were completely free.

"You have to wonder what you're marching for," she said.

Norton said that she and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) will host a reception after the march to encourage Senate passage of the bill. A statement of support also came from New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democratic presidential candidate, who called the bill "long overdue."

Some supporters said yesterday that they worry that even if the measure passes the House, it will fail in the Senate or be vetoed by the president.

"I have great hope," said Anise Jenkins, a D.C. native who lives in the Shaw neighborhood. "We're long overdue."

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